Kate Tempest occupies a pretty tiny pool of Lewisham residents who’ve refashioned both rap and poetry to international acclaim, but she’s made a big splash. As well as winning poetry awards including the prestigious Ted Hughes Award, Tempest’s work has impressed Chuck D, GZA and Roots Manuva, and after eighteen months’ touring theatres with Brand New Ancients, a 75-minute poem accompanied by a classical live score, debut hip hop album Everybody Down sees the rapper-turned-poet revisit old ground with sharp, fresh eyes.
Still based in her beloved South East London – “the first place they raised the Jolly Roger, and where Chris Marlowe was murdered” – the 27 year old swears allegiance to its grimy magic, and it’s a similar landscape that the denizens of Everybody Down traipse. The concept follows generous masseuse Becky, her domineering boyfriend Pete and hapless admirer Harry, a high-end coke dealer doing business in “boardrooms not boozers”. It’s fast and funny and all works up to a hurricane finale; we won’t spoil it, but trust us, it’s nothing less than spectacular.
Focussed on hustling café bosses and pilled-up partiers, the album’s themes are the complex moral networks that sustain us, or the importance of understanding one another’s perspectives. For all the intricacy, though, right now Tempest is happy just to be revisiting her rap roots. “You sweat and enjoy yourself and get lost in it,” she reflects, fondly. “But it’s hard to describe without sounding like a wanker.”
Listening on a train recently, I let the storyline unravel for the first time. There’s a lot to talk about, but what I noticed first was how vividly you paint London, despite never mentioning real places.
Everything I've been writing recently has come out of the same landscape, which is where I grew up. People I know, things I know to be true. London is a very important part of how I understand the world. But anyone, anywhere, could have a mate like Pete, knows a girl like Becky.
Obviously I’d love to talk about the story, but when you were sat on the train listening, that belongs to you and I've got nothing to do with that. And I'm excited about that kind of thing. I know the bricks and mortar of it: I know that cafe, I know that pub, I know that bar, and I could tell you about nights out I've had in them. But it's more important to say that the record comes out of love for these people and these parts of the world, and a desire to tell stories. I'm interested in finding the loveable bit in people, in places we forget those loveable bits exist.
What were your earlier encounters with music?
I was about 13 when I first realised how exciting hip hop was. When I was about 14 I got a job in a record shop in the market in Lewisham, and I got to explore some fucking cool stuff. There was a DJ called Nasty Mcquaid, who looked after the electronic and vinyl section. He'd sit me down and talk about the ritualistic nature of turning a vinyl over. By the time I was 15 I was going to lots of cool events, garage raves and stuff, and at 16 that was it, I became a rapper. People I used to party with, they're still getting on and making important work, and that's an important part of South East London. But, I mean, there's an equal number of people who are doing fuck all.
"Each track (on the album) was part of a bigger story. It was bonkers, completely bonkers, but it made perfect sense"
In the poetry world, did you ever feel like an outsider? Is rap any different?
I did feel like an outsider in poetry and hip hop, but I found in both of those worlds some fucking cool people who, once they got past the 'What the fuck are you doing here?' ended up being supportive and friendly. But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in any scene. I've never found any scene open enough for me to do all the things I want to do. The weirdest thing is an artist who only inhabits one very small world. For me the work is constantly bashing me on the head saying, 'Try something different! Think harder, get better, do something terrifying, what about a play, what about a novel?'
How much are poetry and hip hop intertwined?
I used to think they were the same, but that’s not true. Rap is a heard discipline, it lives in the ears, so it especially follows rules about flow. You have to be rapping to write a rap. The poet shouldn't be there – poetry’s a conversation between the page and reader – whereas the rapper is a vehicle. The rapper's personality is such a part of how the rap is communicated.
How does Everybody Down relate to the novel you're writing?
Oh, man! The whole thing came about one day when Dan Carey, the producer, gave me a call because he had a bit of downtime on a Saturday afternoon. He was like, 'Kate, get down here!’ So I dropped everything, ran down to the studio, and we started mucking around with what became “Lonely Daze”.
Dan was really excited about this story springing up between Pete and Becky, and I didn't know who they were yet. It was a boy and a girl, not much more. In the time it took from that first jam to actually getting into the studio - eight months - these characters just got bigger and bigger, living in my head. Suddenly I realised that their story was long enough to be a novel. I started writing all these chapters, started thinking about backstory, met all their parents in my head.
Eventually, when I got back into the studio with Dan, I had the complete narrative, and chapters for what became the first draft of the novel. So I sat down like, 'Right, Dan, I've had this fucking crazy idea,' and then me and him together decided we wanted to make an album where each track was part of a bigger story. It was bonkers, completely bonkers, but it made perfect sense.